Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences membership changes are step in right direction, Hollywood still has work to do

Large crowd in semi-circle surrounding the statue of the Academy.
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This year’s Academy Awards have been marred persistently by controversy, from hosts to nominees to what awards will be broadcast. The lead-up to awards season is generally a grind but this year it’s proved even more so, leaving little to look forward to in the upcoming hostless telecast with a less than exceptional nominee slate.

Approaching Sunday’s awards, the outlook is generally grim. But it wasn’t always like this in the timeline leading up to this year’s awards show. Amid a year of changes to the Oscars programming, 2018 actually included one major adjustment that looked like it was poised to make some positive impact in the Academy. Last June, the Academy extended its membership to a record 928 new members, with historically higher numbers of women and people of color joining the fold.

This move was in part a response to the 2014 and 2015 #OscarsSoWhite campaigns, which called out the pervasive whitewashing within both the Academy and its nominee slates. Following the 2018 membership change, the Academy boasted that 49 percent of its new class are women and that 38 percent of the class are people of color. While these numbers seem outwardly promising, however, the changes to the total demographic are less dramatic. Of the total Academy membership, the new class raised the percentage of both women and people of color only 3 percent each (from 28 to 31 percent for the former, and 13 to 16 percent for the latter).

Though these changes are promising, they parallel some of the institutional issues the Academy perpetuates. It’s a great choice to be adding more women and people of color to the deciding body of the Academy — but that doesn’t change the fact its membership is still dominated by men and white people. And because Academy members choose both nominees and winners, the ramifications of these persistently white-dominated demographics ripple throughout the entire awards season timeline.

This year’s Oscars was also made all the more concerning for the general (continued) lack of diversity in nominees and, if the rest of awards season is any indicator, this year’s winners. “Green Book,” the whitewashed narrative about pianist Dr. Don Shirley, told with a focus on his racist chauffeur, has emerged as a baffling frontrunner. The film has secured five Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay, amid wins in other awards shows, including Best Motion Picture — Musical or Comedy at the Golden Globes. “Bohemian Rhapsody” is another frontrunner — despite being criticized for misrepresenting Freddie Mercury’s identity as a queer man and for the production’s involvement with Bryan Singer, who has been accused of multiple counts of sexual assault and was previously attached as director.

Both of these films have been shockingly nonchalant about these issues, too, with “Green Book” touting itself as a feel-good movie (as it was designated in the Golden Globes) and “Bohemian Rhapsody” leading man Rami Malek claiming ignorance of the accusations against Singer.

The critical and commercial success of both of these films is a testament to larger industry-wide problems. While the Academy doesn’t necessarily have direct control over these issues, they can influence whom it chooses to nominate and which films ultimately win. In recognizing “Green Book” and “Bohemian Rhapsody,” the Academy has perpetuated issues it initially sought to ameliorate with its more diverse membership class.

Issues with the year’s Oscars are present not only in the films the Academy has chosen to nominate, but also in the absence of many others. “Sorry to Bother You,” “Blindspotting,” and “If Beale Street Could Talk” — all among this year’s critical darlings — were largely left out of this awards season, leaving much to be desired in terms of representation in the actual awards.

When it comes down to it, the Academy Awards are an institution and a problematic one at that. The additions to membership and the Academy’s goals of improving diversity are promising, but this year’s slate of nominees remains less diverse than the cinematic offerings actually presented in the theaters. In 2016, Cheryl Boone Isaacs, who was at the time Academy president, stated that the Academy would double its membership of women and people of color by 2020, so its goal is still in flux. And while this will be an important step, the Academy still has a long way to go in terms of equitable representation, both in its membership and in the films it invites into the Oscars pantheon.

Camryn Bell covers film and television. Contact her at [email protected].